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Congratulations to Fin Walker, the winner of this year's John Betjeman Prize!

Old Un's Notes | December 2019

John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn

The Old Un marvels at the 2019 entries

Wendy Cope, a favourite poet among oldies, was an ideal judge for this year’s annual John Betjeman Poetry Prize for a poem written by a child under 13.

Cope spent 15 years as a primary-school teacher before publishing her 1986 collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – which Amis himself pronounced ‘bloody good’.

She and her co-judge, her poet husband Lachlan Mackinnon, decided without a word of argument that the ‘exceptionally moving’ poem by 13-year-old Fin Perry, written when his mother was ill in hospital, should win. (Fin’s parents are a husband-and-wife team who write teenage vampire romances under the nom de plume of Mia James.)

At St Pancras Station, where the prize is presented annually in front of Martin Jennings’s lovable and lifelike Betjeman statue, the children’s reading aloud of their own verses was interrupted as usual by blaring Tannoy announcements of Eurostar arrivals, plus those infuriating warnings: ‘See it. Say it. Sorted.’

Yet the audience managed to listen raptly to the children’s words. Especially to a poem called Renaissance Rondeau, about a choir singing Verdi in a church with a perfect acoustic – ‘Like Greek theatres where sound was sharp as spears.’ This was written by tiny Herbie Wares, who won the new award for the best poem by a 10-year-old, given in memory of Betjeman’s late mistress Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, who died last year, aged 92.

Wendy Cope was intrigued by Herbie, who attends the independent Dwight School in north London, and asked how he knew about such things. It turned out he had researched the subject after playing the violin in a church with what his teacher said was a T30 reverberation (T30 is a measurement of the ‘decay time’ of a sound).

‘A very impressive little boy,’ said Wendy. And, as her husband – former English master at Winchester – added, ‘We should celebrate the teachers who create young writers and young readers. They inspire the next generation, often in difficult circumstances.’


This story was from December 2019 issue. Subscribe Now